Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Russia in Review: August 14 - 20, 2018

Russia in Review is a weekly intelligence summary (INTSUM) produced by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). This ISW INTSUM series sheds light on key trends and developments related to the Russian government’s objectives and its efforts to secure them

Reporting Period: August 14 - 20, 2018 (The previous period's INSTUM is available here.)

Authors: Catherine Harris and Jack Ulses 

Contributors: Molly Adler, Mason Clark, Nicole Geis, Chase Johnson, Maxim Yulis 

Key Takeaway: The Kremlin experienced renewed friction with Turkey over Syria that may force Russia to reconsider its long-term strategic approach towards Turkey. Russia and Turkey’s interests will likely continue to diverge on the battlefield in Syria. The Kremlin will therefore likely offer high-level diplomatic and economic incentives to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to advance its ultimate strategic objective to weaken and fracture NATO. Meanwhile, Iran conceded to Russia’s longstanding demand to reach a legal status on the Caspian Sea, signifying the stronger position held by Russia in the deepening Russo-Iranian Coalition. The Kremlin also took steps to retain political control over Belarus and sustain its sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union amidst signs of a leadership reshuffle in Minsk.

The Kremlin is likely reaching an inflection point in its efforts to balance disagreements with Turkey over Syria against its strategic objective to coopt Turkey from NATO. The Kremlin has thus far failed to secure a favorable compromise from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan over opposition-held areas protected by Turkey in Northern Syria. Russia likely intends to use the looming threat of a military offensive as well as the existing de-escalation zone brokered by Russia, Iran, and Turkey at the Astana Talks to force territorial concessions from Erdogan. Turkey nonetheless reinforced its military positions in Idlib Province in Northern Syria on August 13, signaling its refusal to capitulate to Russia and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.[1] Russia may also have suffered a setback in its efforts to garner international reconstruction funds for Syria. The Kremlin stated that Russian President Vladimir Putin will likely not attend a planned quadrilateral summit on refugee resettlement in Syria with Turkey, France, and Germany.[2] German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron likely pressured Erdogan to postpone the summit in recent days.[3] Russian media nonetheless messaged that Erdogan and Putin could hold a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of a trilateral summit between Russia, Iran, and Turkey during the first week of September.[4] Putin likely prioritizes mediation between Erdogan and Assad over a pro-regime offensive against Turkey in Idlib Province. The Kremlin may nonetheless be forced to lessen its coordination with Turkey in the face of continued calls for military action by Assad. The Kremlin retains its strategic objective to leverage defense, diplomatic, and economic ties with Turkey - including recent sanctions by the U.S. on Turkey - as a wedge to ultimately weaken and fracture NATO.

Russia exerted its growing influence within the Russo-Iranian Coalition to extract concessions from Iran in the Caspian Sea. Russia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan signed a Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea on August 12. The Convention formally defines the region as a “sea” under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea - terms that Iran had previously rejected as limiting its offshore energy exploration rights. Iran may have conceded to a reduced share of these reserves in exchange for economic incentives from Russia. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani stated that Iran received unspecified “special privileges” for signing the convention amidst criticism from hardline rivals.[5] These privileges likely included investment opportunities in key river port cities in Russia leading to the Caspian Sea.[6] Russia and Iran have already been engaged on a regional transport and logistics strategy for the Caspian Sea since 2017.[7] The concessions nonetheless grant Russia greater leverage over Iran in the Russo-Iranian Coalition

The Kremlin set conditions to protect its long-term control over Belarus. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko may be preparing for a near-term departure from power, creating uncertain political dynamics that could threaten the traditional influence of Russia in Belarus. Lukashenko reshuffled top government officials on August 18 amidst signs that he is considering wider changes to the ruling power structure including alterations to the Belarusian Constitution.[8] The Kremlin may threaten to withhold economic support to Belarus in order to ensure that any political reforms protect the privileged position of Russia in Belarus. The Kremlin is considering a freeze on future tranches of a $2 billion aid package to Belarus as well as a halt to negotiations over a new $1 billion intergovernmental loan. Russia will also reportedly limit exports of refined oil products to Belarus starting on September 1. Belarus has substantially increased its own resale of refined products from Russia to the EU (including Poland and Germany) since 2017. The Kremlin previously signaled its growing concern over Belarus with the appointment of Mikhail Babich - a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin - as the new Russian Ambassador to Belarus on July 20. The Kremlin identifies Belarus as an integral component of its sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union. Russia will likely take more aggressive measures including military posturing and covert operations if it perceives any increased cooperation between Belarus and the West. 

What to Watch

The Kremlin may soften a controversial pension reform bill to quell domestic discontent. The bill - which would raise the formal retirement age close to average life expectancy - has driven widespread protests across Russia. Russian officials are reportedly considering an amendment that would allow pensioners to receive tax exemptions and subsidies at the current pension age despite the higher retirement age.[9] The Kremlin may be floating this proposed amendment to deter citizens from signing petitions that could force a public and potentially embarrassing referendum on the bill. 

The U.S. intends to reaffirm its support for Ukraine ahead of a high-level meeting between the U.S. and Russia in Geneva. U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton will travel to Ukraine for Ukrainian Independence Day on August 24 before a meeting with Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev in late August 2018. A White House official confirmed that the high-level talks are a follow-up to the July 16 Helsinki Summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The discussion will reportedly focus on arms control as well as Iran in Syria, according to the White House. It may also set conditions for a potential second summit between Trump and Putin in early 2019. 

[1] “No ground attack by the Syrian regime and observation posts will never withdraw, Turkish military base for dignitaries of Idlib & Hama,” Syria Call, August 15, 2018, http://nedaa-sy(.)com/en/news/7886 ; Leith Aboufadel, “Syrian military sends more reinforcements to northern Hama for upcoming offensive,” Al-Masdar, August 13, 2018, https://mobile(.)

[2] “Putin, Erdogan May Hold Bilateral Meeting in Tehran – Reports,” Sputnik, August 17, 2018, https://sputniknews(.)com/middleeast/201808171067257313-putin-erdogan-bilateral-meeting-tehran/

[3] [“No: 213, 10 August 2018, Press release regarding the visit of Foreign Minıster of Russian Federation H. E. Mr. Sergei Lavrov to Turkey,”] Turkish Foreign Ministry, August 10, 2018, http://www.mfa(.) ; “Turkish, French presidents discuss economic ties,” AA, August 16, 2018, https://www.aa(.)

[4] “Putin, Erdogan May Hold Bilateral Meeting in Tehran – Reports,” Sputnik, August 17, 2018, https://sputniknews(.)com/middleeast/201808171067257313-putin-erdogan-bilateral-meeting-tehran/

[5] “Iran received special privileges in Caspian Sea Convention: Pres. Rouhani,” Mehr News, August 15, 2018, https://en(.) ; [“Caspian, Iran share and historical right: all percentages,”] Shafaqna,

[6] “Russia’s lower house to develop business ties with Iran through parliamentary dimension,” TASS, April 9, 2018, http://tass(.)com/politics/998469

[7] “Russia-Iran Business Council Welcome to Engage in Caspian Hub Project – Official,” Sputnik, January 19, 2017, https://sputniknews(.)com/business/201701191049748013-russia-iran-caspian-hub-project/

[8] “Belarus president wants proposals on replacing central government officials,” Belarus News, August 14, 2018, http://eng.belta(.)by/president/view/belarus-president-wants-proposals-on-replacing-central-government-officials-113991-2018/

[9] “Russian officials reportedly explore possibility of preserving some retirement benefits, as pension age is set to rise,” Meduza, August 15, 2018, https://meduza(.)io/en/news/2018/08/15/russian-officials-reportedly-explore-possibility-of-preserving-some-retirement-benefits-as-pension-age-is-set-to-rise